The Life of an Expat

Being an English teacher has its challenges, but one of the biggest perks I have as a language teacher is that I can teach my lessons through a variety of lenses.  If I’m teaching about conditional voice, for example, I can have the students talk about which super powers they wish they had, or about regrets they have from the past.

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The super power I always wish for is teleportation.  That way I could see these cuties any time I want!

This year, I chose to teach my grade 9 students English through a lens I think everyone should consider: “Critical Thinking in Social Media”.  I introduced them to Snopes, discussed the power (and danger) of memes and we talked about subjects ranging from  gun control in the United States to South Korean fan superstitions.  My hope was that I’d teach them how to be considerate and intelligent Netizens, but I probably learned nearly as much as they did.

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Each week, I put students into groups and gave them an outrageous news article. I asked them to guess whether or not the information was true based on some ‘fact checking’ skills I’d taught them.  Then, I handed out the Snopes articles that verified the information.  Finally, they presented their findings (along with any new words they learned through the process) to their classmates.  It was a VERY worthwhile way to spend a few classes!

Our class discussions about the dangers of Social Media really got me thinking.  We discussed the idea that people rarely write about bad things that are happening in their lives, but instead tend to focus on the positive, making their lives look more glamorous and perfect that they really are.  In of itself, this isn’t a problem, but when others see those happy posts, they start to compare their own lives with the (perfect) lives that others present to the cyber world.

I try not to do this, but, of course, it can be difficult.  I haven’t been feeling particularly positive lately, so I thought this would be a good time to write about the negative aspects of living as an expat.  *Spoiler…it’s awesome…but like everything, it has its downsides*

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For example, I rarely post about all the food poisoning I’ve had in the last 4 years!

June is a hard month for a lot of reasons.  It’s the end of the school year, which is stressful for all teachers.  Between grading, report cards and final tests, teachers across the planet are barely holding it together every June.  When you’re an expat teacher, you have to also consider the stress of booking flights home, finding cat sitters, and spending 6 weeks living out of suitcases.  It’s stressful.

That’s not to say that I’d give up my trip home to avoid these stresses…but it is something a lot of people don’t think about when they think of what it’s like teaching abroad.  Other things include…

Saying Goodbye to Students

One event was particularly emotional for me this month.  My grade 9 students have been with me since my very first day at SFLS, and in September, they will be moving onto high school. Many of them will be moving abroad as well, so it’s not as though I’ll be seeing many of them again.   Their graduation was last Friday and although I promised myself I wasn’t going to cry (I even refused to bring tissue in an attempt to not even give myself the option), I ended up red in the face and tearier than I would like to admit.  When you love teaching…it’s easy to become attached to the kids you see every day for 3 years.

Still, I wish them all the best, and although it sucks to see them go, I have new students coming in next September, and they will provide new challenges and rewards for me and all their other teachers.

Expat Friendships

The friendships you form while living abroad are also a very important part of the expat life. I’ve made friends from all over the world, and although we’re all very different people with very different backgrounds, there is one thing we all have in common: we don’t really belong anywhere.

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Pictured here: 2 Canadians, a Chinese-Australian, an Argentinian and an American.  Some of my best friends in the world

When you’re away from home, having a good group of friends becomes increasingly important.  They’re who you spend Christmas with and they’re who help you through troubled times.  Most importantly, they’re the ones who understand you, because as much as people back home can try and empathize, they only really see the really good and really bad parts of being an expat…none of the ‘in-between-everday-stuff’.

Dave and I are far more outgoing and far more adventurous abroad than we ever were back home, and our social life is pretty awesome.  We spend lots of time going out for dinner, going to KTV, going to Salsa parties, and of course, I have my band.  All these things are done with friends…and 99% of my friends are currently expats, or people who were previously expats, but have moved back home to China.

Of course…when you are a nomad and surround yourself with other nomads…people enter and leave your life regularly.  It’s difficult because I understand it…but I hate it.  I also hate that soon I’ll be the one leaving people behind.  Already, I find myself wondering if I’ll ever find friends as good as the ones I have in Suzhou…

The ‘Home Dilemma’

Home becomes a really weird concept when you live abroad.  I like to say that ‘Home is where my cats are’, but in reality, I spend 3 months away from them every year.  I’d like to say that ‘Home is where you grew up’, but nobody in my family even lives in that tiny Manitoba town, so how can that really be home?  Steinbach never really felt like home for me, because I was too different from the local people.  Oddly enough, in some ways, Suzhou has been feeling more like home than anywhere I’ve ever been.  I’ve become a part of the community, through music, foodie groups and through school.

I think that living abroad changes you in that way.  Home isn’t as easily defined when you don’t ever quite fit in.  In China, I’m a minority.  I’m only one of a few thousand expats in a city of 8 million people.  Back home, it’s the same.  I’ve had such a different 4 years than most of my friends and family.  It’s difficult to explain your feelings about things when the people in your life see the world differently than you do.  It’s especially noticeable when talking about world politics or world events with people back in Canada.  It’s easy to talk about India’s poverty or an earthquake in Indonesia when you see it as some far off place, separate from you.  But when you can picture the smells and sounds of a place….when you’ve been there and it’s personal…you see those events very differently.

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This week a ferry capsized and sank in Northern Sumatra. Several people have been confirmed dead and more than 120 people are still missing. We took a ferry on that same route to Samosir Island back in February. It affects us differently than it will have affected people back home (who probably haven’t even heard about the accident)

What makes it especially hard is that we’ve never had any family or friends visit us here in China.  I know that it isn’t in everyone’s budget, and there are a thousand reasons why people can’t just hop on a plane and visit, but regardless of those reasons…it makes ‘home’ a difficult subject.  At the end of the day, China is currently our home, but the people we know and love back in Canada have no idea what our life is like in the place we call home.

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When family and friends do come visit, everyone gets excited. When Kim’s parents visited last year, we all went out for dinner together.

And that’s why I hound my family save up and come visit us…it’s not because I want to show them the sites or because I think China is the most beautiful place on earth….it’s because I want them to understand me.  I people back home to understand what life is like in the city I currently call home.

Always Missing Somewhere or Someone

And of course there’s the obvious reason it’s hard being an expat is all the stuff you leave behind at the end of the summer.  It’s great having stories to tell your family and friends…but I really do wish I had the power of teleportation.  Then, I wouldn’t need to miss everyone so much.

It isn’t All Bad

Of course, it isn’t nearly all bad.  June is probably my least favourite month of the year.  It’s difficult saying goodbye to students.  It’s difficult saying goodbye to friends.  Add that to the fact that it’s exam season and end of term…and I can’t believe it’s taken me 4 years to write this post.

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I can barely complain about my own stresslevels in June. Students in China write the Gaokao, which is the test that will get them into a good (or less than good) university. When the tests are done, kids choose a classroom, tear up their books and dump them all in a pile. This was this year’s classroom….

Still, there are a thousand things that being an expat allows us to do.  It sucks saying goodbye to friends…but it’s great meeting so many new people all the time.  It sucks only seeing our family and Canadian friends once a year, but we always have so many stories to tell them!  And being an Expat gives us so many opportunities that we’d never have back in Canada.  My band wouldn’t get nearly as many gigs if we weren’t ‘interesting foreigners’.  Of course, we could never afford to travel this much if we didn’t live in China.  And with Dave working from home, we were able to foster little Oscar.  Here are some pictures of Oscar to remind you of all the reasons I love being an expat!

Stay tuned!  I’ve got half a dozen more posts coming in the next month or so!!

Suzhou Foodies

One of the coolest parts of being an expat is all the people you meet. They come from everywhere. I’ve met chefs from Italy, chemists from New Zealand, PhD students from Turkey and of course, musicians from Portugal, The Philippines and beyond… We all come from different backgrounds and are in China for various reasons, but we all have one thing in common… We’ve all chosen Suzhou as home away from home.

Dave and I at the “Red Dress Hash”. Everyone dressed up in red dresses and fundraised for an Orphanage here in Suzhou. We saw a bit of the city, spent the evening outside walking, and had a great time!

At the beginning of this year, I decided to put myself out there more. I joined several WeChat groups in an effort to meet more people and to become part of the expat community. I started with music groups, because it was something I knew a lot about. I’ve also joined writers’ groups, travel groups and most recently, a Foodie group.

Anyone who knows me knows that I love both cooking… And eating!!!

In the Foodie Group, we all post about our favourite restaurants.  Now, whenever Dave and I want to try something new, we check out places that have been recommended by fellow Foodies.

Our most recent recommendation: a Singaporean restaurant in Suzhou Center

A few months ago, I wrote about our friend, Lixia, and her restaurant that specializes in Guizhou food. Before I knew it, I was getting messages from the other Foodies, thanking me for the recommendation. Since then, this tiny Chinese restaurant has become quite popular amongst expats.

Lixia surprised Dave with a cake for his birthday last month

Lixia is easily one of the sweetest and most hard working people I know, so when I learned about a Food & Beverage competition, I got in touch with the organizers and nominated Zou Guizhou for the “Best View” award.

Her award winning view

Tonight, we went to the finals for this award, at The W hotel here in SIP. Lixia won in her category, and we were able to celebrate with her. It was a really fun night filled with good food, great wine and fabulous company.

Kevin joined us for the evening. He is the one who found Zou Guizhou for us 2 years ago

Several of our friends won awards. Larry (on the right) owns the best Vietnamese restaurant I’ve ever eaten at. He’s also a great guy (and Canadian!)

So happy to have Miya back in Suzhou!!!

Larry and Lixia have become friends too 🙂

Some of the fabulous food we had tonight

The best part of the night was when I realized how many people I knew at the event. A year ago, I made it my mission to become part of the expat community in Suzhou… And that mission has been accomplished.

Day 1 – Pudong Airport

Well, we are on day 3 of our holiday now, so I suppose I have some catching up to do if I’m going to blog every day!!!

The theme of my first post is simple: I hate Pudong airport. Pudong is Shanghai’s international airport, so we use it at least 4 times every year. Each time, I’m floored by how bad it is.

This year was especially bad because we flew over night and our flight left at 1:30am. Now, my big problem with PVG is that after security, the food and drink options are seriously limited. There are a few really bad Chinese restaurants (which confuses me because Chinese food is so good!!!), and everything is terribly overpriced… Even by airport standards!!

Burger King is one of the only decent options post security, so on Sunday night, Dave spent over an hour waiting in line to get a couple of burgers (we were flying Air Asia… They give you exactly NOTHING on their flights without paying extra so we usually just eat at the airport).

In the meantime, I set off to find bottled water (they seriously give you nothing…). I spent an hour running around only to find small bottles of Evian for 40rmb (350ml for nearly $10 Canadian). I couldn’t even find a functional drink machine either….I DID find SIM card vending machines though…. So there’s that.

In the end, I found an entire row of drinking machines about a half km down the airport, but by then, I was so thirsty I downed 2 bottles right away and then ran out of change! Luckily, Dave showed up moments later with additional coinage and burgers in hand.

A modern day knight in shining armour.

Snowy Suzhou

Suzhou doesn’t get a lot of snow. In fact, it only snows here every 5 years or so; and it rarely sticks around.

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We get enough to make an itty bitty snowlady every once in a while (credit: someone in my office…I’m not sure who)

Fortunately for me, this year was one of those ‘off’ years, where Mother Nature bestowed some of the white stuff upon this beautiful city.

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Quite a bit of the white stuff, actually (credit: my dear husband…my hands were too cold and I didn’t want to take my phone out!)

When people aren’t used to snow, it can be quite an ordeal! We saw one accident on our 5 minute walk home, and I can’t imagine how many delivery men wiped out on their e-bikes today! Imagine a late spring storm…with people who have never driven on ice before!

I’ve lived in Suzhou now for nearly 3 years, and although I’ve had my challenges here, I really do love this city. Many of the gardens here are UNESCO World Heritage Sites and are considered to be some of the most beautiful gardens in China. We often spend afternoons walking through them because even the smaller ones are a nice break from the hustle and bustle of Suzhou. I’m always amazed at how quiet the gardens here are…especially when I consider the 8 million + people that live here!

Unfortunately for me, I never had a chance to bring my camera to any of Suzhou’s gardens today. Plenty of others did though, so I’ve collected some of my favourite photos from the day and compiled them so you can see what a lovely city we chose to call home. I can’t actually credit anyone specifically…China isn’t big on copyrighting things, so I’ll just say now that none of these pictures are mine….

November 30th

I haven’t forgotten! I’ve just been busy! With exams this week, I’ve been spending every second prepping. Students spend 2 full days writing exams 3 times every semester. It isn’t easy on the teachers either.

My final post for the month is about sweet potatoes. Hang on… It’s more interesting than it sounds.

Every year, as it gets colder out, these sweet potato vendors pop up all around the city. They’re perfect, really. Sweet potatoes are tasty, filling and simple to prepare. They’re also cheap, making them the snack of choice for the impoverished and the students (redundancy?) of China.

The problem with these stands is that those sweet potatoes are sometimes the only filling food that people can afford, and while these snacks are high in vitamins A, B5 & B6, they’re very low in calcium, potassium, vitamin C and protein. Simply put: if you’re eating these things 3 times a day, you might be in trouble.

On the bright side, it doesn’t look like it would take much to start a sweet potato business!

November 29th

Behold, China’s greatest secret: How to fit far too many cars into virtually no space at all.

I took this at the end of our walk last night, and my biggest regret was that I hadn’t captured the much worse version of this parking job that we’d seen the night before. You see, there isn’t nearly enough parking available in China, so people just sort of park wherever they can. Some of the most impressive parking jobs I’ve seen:

  • Parking in front of other cars (as seen above)
  • Parking on the side walk (sidewalks are difficult to walk on because of all the cars…)
  • Parking in the middle of an intersection (so that your car becomes an extension of the median)
  • Parking on the ramp of a parkade

I don’t know if we’ve ever eaten a meal at the restaurant behind our building without the waiting staff coming in at LEAST once to ask if we had driven there, because somebody was boxed in, and they needed a car moved.

This is reason #211 why I have no desire to drive in China.

November 28th

This is the little side street that runs behind our building. There are plenty of little restaurants down this road, as well as a couple of hotels and Euromart. It’s a popular area for people to eat, and get a few drinks.

This also happens to be the little road that Dave and I were driving past when we were hit by an e-bike.

Our bike was ok, and Dave was uninjured, but the guy drove directly into my shin. I suppose I was lucky that my leg didn’t break, but that’s not to say the injury wasn’t severe. Even now, a year and a half later, I have bruising, and I’m a bit afraid that the nerve damage will never fully go away.

I call this intersection “Shattered Shin Pass”. My shin may not have actually shattered, but my love for late-night e-bike rides surely did.